Defending Digital Liberties: Changing Contours of an Old New Civic Activism

The recent civil society responses, initiatives, and protest meetings in the wake of the Digital Personal Data Protection Bill, 2023 (now an Act) are only the latest among a set of initiatives that together must be seen as India’s digital liberties movement. These are an emerging set of initiatives that draw together activism around online censorship, government surveillance, internet blackouts, etc. Such initiatives are a new manifestation of an older tradition of protest and activism to secure citizens’ liberties from governmental abuse of power. This article attempts to build an understanding of the continuity, the changes, and the challenges faced by this emergent and expanding activism. In particular, it draws two analytical differences between older civil liberties activism and contrast it with emergent digital liberties activism.

 

 

Digital liberties activism seeks to preserve and continue the country’s pre-existing traditions of civil liberties activism. This is not only because the core focus of civil liberties as well as digital liberties activism remains the same, viz., to curb the arbitrary abuse of state power, but also because the two are linked on the ground. One of the first landmark judgement on online censorship and the repeal of Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, 2000 (IT Act) was secured by one of the oldest civil liberties organisations in the country, the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), which had moved the court to protect acts of making dissenting speech acts online. In 2015, PUCL approached the court against the widespread use of Section 66A of the IT Act, 2000. This section criminalised “offensive speech” over the internet and was used to suppress dissent. PUCL argued that this section was unconstitutional and impedes exercising one’s constitutional right to freedom of expression. The Supreme Court of India entirely invalidated Section 66A of the IT Act (Bapat and Singh 2021). Of course, it is a continuing challenge to get these rulings honoured, observed, and implemented.

 

The above victory and a successful campaign for net neutrality in the same year set off digital liberties activism with a promising start. In March 2015, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) released a consultation paper on net neutrality for public feedback. Most likely, this TRAI proposal was in response to the constant lobbying by telecom service providers to introduce additional charges for specific apps and websites. This proposal set into motion a host of popular initiatives against the TRAI draft proposal and in support of net neutrality. The following month, a YouTube comedy channel, All India Bakchod, uploaded a video titled “Save The Internet,” which urged people to email TRAI demanding net neutrality. This and other similar videos were re-shared across social media platforms numerous times. Various volunteer groups under the ambit of the Free Software Movement of India organised protests across Indian cities. Emails poured in at a phenomenal rate, and TRAI received over a million emails (Bhargava 2016). Almost a year later, in February 2016, the TRAI barred telecom service providers from charging differential rates for data services.

 

Over the years, several civil society-based groups have emerged to defend digital liberties. They have run advocacy campaigns against executive orders to block websites and impose bans, online free speech violations, internet censorship, internet shutdowns, and secret surveillance. Amidst India’s strides towards a technology revolution and governmental push for digital India, there is also a growing concentration of power in the hands of the executive in a new realm. The digital liberties movement is an emerging social movement in India that draws together activism around four broad areas: a) net neutrality, b) censorship and free expression, c) online privacy, and d) equal access. These groups are among the latest manifestations of India’s long history of resistance against the governmental abuse of power and to secure citizens’ civil liberties. Some of the first initiatives to protect civil liberties in independent India took place in the late 1960s (Ray 2003). At the time, various liberal and left groups persistently campaigned against police abuse, torture, and illegal detentions of the arrested Naxalite prisoners. These initiatives intensified further in 1975 as the government imposed the internal Emergency (George 2005). Over the years, groups such as the PUCL and the People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR), amongst many others, have raised the issues of custodial rapes, deaths, and torture. They have opposed bans and campaigned to uphold the right to freedom of speech, expression, and association. They have demanded the death penalty repeal and have actively taken up the rights of those condemned to death row.

 

Unlike civil liberties activism, digital liberties activism does not just take place in a pre-existing public space, a large part of this activism is, in fact, to protect the digital public space. The battle here is not just to be able to convey the message but equally to save the medium. Hannah Arendt points out two dimensions of the public sphere—first, “a space of appearance” that refers to the freedom that come into existence through an act citizens perform and second, the “common world,” which refers to a shared physical space of institutions and settings that provides a relatively durable context for the acts of citizens (Canovan 1985). While civil liberties activism most often occupied the latter space, that is, they protested or intervened in a pre-existing public space. These groups would organise dharnas (a sit-in demonstration), rallies, demonstrations, press meetings, report releases, seminars, street theatres, etc., on designated protest sites, outside government offices, traffic intersections, halls and auditoriums owned by non-profit organisations, and streets. Digital liberties activism often works to not only protest in the digital sphere but also, in the first instance, protect it and ensure its availability. Consider, for instance, the regular campaigns against internet shutdowns. Digital liberties groups have consistently compiled reports on the impact of arbitrary shutdowns. In June 2023, the Internet Freedom Foundation and Human Rights Watch published a report titled “No Internet Means No Work, No Pay, No Food—Internet Shutdowns Deny Access to Basic Rights in ‘Digital India’” (2023). These groups have also written to government officials, members of the Parliament, chief ministers, and senior bureaucrats of the concerned states where internet shutdowns have been implemented. The virtual space for dissent is even more fragile than the designated physical spaces for protest, such as Jantar Mantar or previously India Gate lawns in Delhi. Digital liberties activism does not just operate in a virtual public space; they actively work towards preserving it, keeping it accessible as well as available.

 

The second discontinuity between civil liberties activism and emergent digital liberties activism is the new dynamic between the state–activist–corporate relationship. Previously, the lines were pretty clearly drawn, in that the civil liberties activists routinely condemned the government–corporate “nexus” that allowed corporations to violate various norms in the name of development. For example, activists raised issues such as the Odisha government’s assistance in bauxite mining by Vedanta in the Niyamgiri hills and the intimidation, harassment, custodial violence, and extrajudicial detention of the people resisting Vedanta which followed. In August 2019, for instance, the PUDR released a report titled “Corporate Loot and People’s Resistance in Niyamgiri,” which describes how government agencies assist or favour corporations (Tandon and Bhattacharya 2019). To take another example, activists have closely followed workers’ struggle with Maruti’s management in Haryana. Here too, several reports, such as Hard Drive in 2001, Freewheelin Capital in 2007, and Driving Force in 2013, all document the governmental acts of omission and commission that favoured the Maruti management (Manjit and Gupta 2013). A large number of civil liberties activists’ point of view was that the government equated corporate-led industrialisation with “development.” The land acquired for such “development” was often through force and fraud in which the government and corporates allegedly cooperated. The activists who sought to expose this or resisted such “development” were considered anti-India, unlawful, or anti-social. So, from the point of view of several activists, the political battlefield was demarcated clearly—government and private capital were on one side and people and activists were on the other.

 

This state–activist–corporate dynamic changes fundamentally when we consider digital liberties activism. This activism is intertwined with private platforms in a way never seen before. The digital public space is privately owned; therefore, this activism is intertwined with that. It might not be incorrect to say that deliberations/exposé/protests/mobilisations depend on corporate infrastructures and profit-driven industries. In a way, a vision of resistance unsullied by the presence of private capital, as imagined by the heterodox left formations of the civil society, has become unavailable in the context of citizens’ digital rights. Digital liberties activism is waged by people who are intertwined with late capitalism; therefore, their politics emerges from using its technologies and companies. For instance, in 2019, an associate professor at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research in Kolkata, who is also a well-known civil rights activist and a founding member of a socialist magazine Sanhati, received a notification email from Yahoo stating, “We believe your Yahoo account may have been the target of government-backed actors, which means that they could gain access to the information in your account” (Shantha and Srivas 2019). In 2021, Meta, the parent company of WhatsApp, moved the Delhi High Court against the Government of India’s new and stricter Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, that required the instant messaging platform to assist the government in identifying the originator of messages. In a writ petition, Meta challenged the constitutional validity of these rules and stated that this would amount to breaking end-to-end encryption for its users (Digital Desk 2021). And most recently, in the context of the farmers’ movement against the three proposed farm laws, Twitter (sic) challenged 39 out of over 1,640 government blocking orders under Section 69A of the Information Technology Act during 2021–22. These blocking orders were to prevent the farmer organisations and activists, such as the Samyukt Kisan Morcha, from using Twitter to publish statements, organise, and advocate for their cause. A comment was made which I cannot imagine coming from a previous generation of activists for a large private corporation: Raman Jit Singh Chima, a senior international counsel and the Asia Pacific policy director at Access Now, said,Today, Twitter is standing up for the population and doing what should be the government’s job: safeguarding our rights” (Sur and Ghosh 2022).

 

These are perhaps the only three instances of private corporations pushing back government actors for user rights. Of course, these companies were not doing this to defend digital liberties of Indian users but to keep and expand user base. None of the three corporations won the cases they filed. Yet, there is enough evidence to re-think the state–corporation–activist dynamic. Digital liberties are being fought for in a public space that is privately owned. Those looking for a form of resistance, unsullied by the presence of private capital, chase a nostalgic illusion today more than ever before. If we abandon the expectations of resistance as a space of unsullied, righteous politics and consider newer forms of movements to defend liberties more realistically, we can find an expanding panorama of thought and practice around defending liberties. The basic principles of liberal and socialist politics remain the same—liberty, equality and justice—but they are being fought for in a new space and conducted via a new privately owned medium that transforms the character of the activism itself.

 

It is obvious to all that we are watching the birth and early period of digital liberties activism in India and also an early period of our theorising on it. Given the impact of the state powers in the digital realm, it is essential that those of us who study social movements to continue to invest in analytical studies of the emerging digital liberties movement in India. The quest for liberty has informed this country’s national movement and has brought about landmark changes in its post-independence politics. Now, its manifestation in the digital realm, and this new emerging dynamic is worth our attention.

Must Read

Do water policies recognise the differential requirements and usages of water by women and the importance of adequate availability and accessibility?
Personal Laws in India present a situation where abolishing them in the interest of gender justice also inadvertently benefits the reactionary side.   
Back to Top